In The Democratic Soul, Aaron L. Herold argues that democracy's current crisis arises from dissatisfaction with the Enlightenment's emphasis on rights over duties. Using the work of Spinoza and Tocqueville, he articulates a revision of liberalism that recovers ideals of justice and political moderation for the contemporary moment.
Aug 2021 | 288 pages | Cloth $59.95
Philosophy / Political Science
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Spinoza's Liberal Theology
Chapter 2. Spinoza's Democratic Republicanism
Chapter 3. Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy, and the Enlightenment Project
Chapter 4. Tocqueville's Political Science and the Democratic Soul
Liberal democracy presently finds itself in a state of crisis. A generation after the Cold War, predictions that this form of government would be the future of all mankind have given way to disenchantment and disillusionment, and even to warnings about its survival (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018; Snyder 2018; cf. Fukuyama 1992). Surveying the current landscape, it is easy to see how such warnings have become common. The United States is currently experiencing an alarming loss of confidence in its political institutions and in those serving in public office. Riven by polarization and ideological partisanship, the electorate has, in its distaste for politics, begun turning to outsiders promising wholesale and even revolutionary change—a development that is almost certainly both a result and an exacerbating cause of the weakening of the once moderating political center. On both sides of the Atlantic, a politics that was supposed to achieve the expansion of individual rights and resources has been disrupted by a surge in authoritarian populism and, where its proponents have come to power, by a trend toward "illiberal democracy" (Plattner 2019). And while the liberal West grapples with these domestic maladies, it continues to confront the political and theological challenge posed by radical Islam.
The decline of moderation in contemporary politics appears to reflect broader anxieties about liberal democracy's meaning and purpose, raising critical questions about national identity and political community (Fukuyama 2018). To be sure, the immediate causes of these anxieties are complex, combining political, economic, demographic, ideological, and other elements. Should some of these be adequately addressed in the near term, it is possible we could come through these difficulties unscathed. What I will argue in the present study, however, is that we are actually in the midst of a much deeper crisis, one that is partly at the root of our current disillusionment and that is certain to endure well into the future because its roots can be traced well into the past—indeed, to liberal democracy's foundations. This is the disillusionment, which is now found across the political spectrum, with the political project of the liberal Enlightenment.
This loss of confidence in the fundamental principles of our regime and way of life contains both a philosophical and a moral dimension. Following the alleged victory of postmodernism and historicism, today's leading political theorists take it as beyond dispute that the Enlightenment's confidence in reason as the basis for sound politics has been shown to be groundless and that our continuing attachment to liberalism must therefore be a matter only of mere faith or commitment. While such arguments are typically found on the left, a growing chorus of religious voices on the right have also embraced them (Lawler 1999), for if the liberal Enlightenment's case for reason has been debunked, does the door not open again for the claims of revelation and orthodox religion that the early modern thinkers were once thought to have refuted? Some contemporary conservatives have thus sought to introduce a theological basis for modern politics and, in some cases, to do so while jettisoning liberalism itself (Deneen 2018; Kraynak 2001). Of course, an even more radical version of this thought may explain some of the attraction of radical Islam and other postmodern anti-democratic ideologies.
But the deeper roots of our predicament can be found not in this theoretical rejection of Enlightenment rationalism but in a moral objection to the way of life modern liberal democracy has produced—a way of life that can be traced to the commercial republican vision of Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, and The Federalist. To be sure, the great material achievements of liberal democracy are undeniable. However many challenges remain, the United States has made great strides in realizing the ideals of toleration and equal justice under the law. Thanks to modern medicine, technology, and economics, inhabitants of the developed world expect to live longer and more prosperous lives than those of any society in human history. Yet in spite of this, in increasingly large circles there are nagging doubts about whether our great material achievements have been matched by comparable moral, spiritual, and intellectual accomplishments. To put it bluntly, it seems neither the left, the right, nor the center today can rest satisfied with Richard Rorty's blasé conclusion that even if liberal democracy's typical character types are "bland, calculating, petty, and unheroic, the prevalence of such people may be a reasonable price to pay for political freedom" (1991, 190). Can freedom really survive—can it really be worthy of the name—if it fails to serve a goal that is loftier and more ennobling than the pursuit of prosaic ends like material enrichment and entertainment (however necessary some amount of these may be as equipment for living a truly good life)? With questions like this in the background, over the past several decades attention has grown among political theorists to the need to supplement liberal democracy's teaching on individual rights so as to encourage civic, moral, intellectual, and artistic devotion.
One sees this awareness, for example, in communitarian and civic republican theories of democracy, which seek not to jettison long-held notions of individual rights but to provide a new and hopefully firmer basis for these rights by deriving them from civic attachments and duties (see esp. Sandel 1996). Such theorists tend to blame the unchecked individualism and commercialism of modern liberalism for our most pressing ills—such as family and communal breakdown, corporate greed, and environmental destruction—all the while claiming that a reformulated republican or communitarian politics would both address those ills and nurture such quintessentially liberal principles as toleration and the rights of the individual against the state. Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, there has arisen a religious and conservative counterpart to this (generally) left-leaning attempt to recover a sense of civic obligation. Among some thinkers on the Christian right, the dominance of "rights talk" (Glendon 1993) in our civic discourse has been faulted for cultivating a morally compromised, excessively self-regarding and libertine society, as found, for example, in abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and a decline in private moral restraints that has nonetheless greatly transformed the public square.
Despite their stark political differences then, these left-leaning and right-leaning schools of thought share a common theoretical concern. They are united by a desire to rectify the dominance of our individualistic and rights-based moral discourse by recovering an idea of duty or obligation: the notion that we as human beings and as citizens owe things, and therefore can be called upon to make sacrifices, to entities outside ourselves—to our families, to our communities, to our nation, or to God. Indeed, calls to supplement our emphasis on rights with attention to duties and with a call to honor self-sacrifice have a long pedigree in America. In the past century, such sentiments were voiced most memorably in John F. Kennedy's inaugural declaration that we ought to ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country.
But the growing popularity of such calls is also testimony to our internally conflicting attitudes. Rights and duties, after all, may and often do oppose one another: the one tells us what is owed to us, the other what we owe someone else; the one tends to be self-regarding, the other self-sacrificial. The tradition that gave us our modern notion of individual rights derived them from life in a pre-political "state of nature." According to this tradition, government is an artificial creation, the product of a social contract that aims to secure the mutual self-interest of naturally apolitical individuals. Hence, Thomas Hobbes wrote that, when it comes to morality, there are no natural laws properly speaking: what men call natural laws "are but conclusions or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves" (Hobbes 1994, xv.41). Laws only exist where a sovereign can instill compliance through the prospect of reward and punishment—by making moral behavior "the best bargain" (in John Locke's words; Locke 1965, 184, para. 245).
Duties or obligations, by contrast, entail a sense that one is, in the most crucial respect, not a free and autonomous individual but a part of a greater whole to which one owes service. Thus, at the opening of the Politics, the seminal work in the tradition from which Hobbes broke, Aristotle declared that "the human is by nature a political animal," in other words, that he belongs to the political community as a hand belongs to the body (1253a2, 1253a20-23). Both of these traditions are part of our political consciousness, but is it really possible to reconcile them? Or is our desire to do so instead testimony to our restless and naturally human desire to have things both ways?
This problem becomes only more troubling when we consider the implications of this conflict for the subject of this study: the place of religion in democratic politics. On an individual or psychological level, the tension between self-regarding notions of rights and other-regarding notions of duties, between the desire for benefit and an attraction to self-sacrifice, points inevitably to the problem of religion. After all, only a providential divinity could successfully reconcile these conflicting notions by rewarding sacrifices made in this life with rewards in another. At the same time, though, there is inevitably a political dimension to this problem, and it poses a dilemma for those contemporary thinkers (whether left or right) seeking to preserve both rights and duties. Today's civic republicans have criticized, as spiritually impoverished, the liberal state's aspiration to be "neutral among ends" and have sought to replace it with a politics oriented toward a shared conception of civic virtue (Sandel 1996, 26-27, 290). But the notion of a publicly authoritative teaching about the good life cuts very much against the grain of our deeply embedded liberal ideals, to which these theorists remain firmly attached. This may account for why they often become vague or ambiguous when attempting to articulate the content of a new public teaching about the good life. Indeed, the tradition of republican thought to which they appeal had insisted that the freedom permitted by self-government, and the civic dedication required to maintain it, necessitates a public religious teaching. According to that tradition, civic virtue and the establishment of communal bonds require self-restraint and self-sacrifice, and these necessitate not just shared belief but also an intrusive, religiously based law.
Just as civic friendship and mutual obligation require public piety (according to this tradition), so too a renewed emphasis on a public role for religion may be less friendly to liberal freedoms than is commonly thought. At least as traditionally conceived—prior to the early modern period—dominant interpretations of the Bible did not accommodate the rights of the individual. This claim is perhaps more controversial than the preceding one, for no doubt many, if not the vast majority, of religious authorities in the West today would emphasize the friendliness of Scripture to core liberal concepts like democracy and human rights. But the dearth of such arguments prior to the Enlightenment may be grounds for reevaluating whether that emphasis is justified. At the very least, the desire among some of today's right-leaning religious thinkers to criticize the Enlightenment's teaching on self-interest while preserving its core notion of rights constitutes another attempt to square the moral circle (Burns 2014a, 2014b). As is now becoming recognized, liberalism's origins rested on a new theology, a novel and heterodox recasting of the Bible that attempted to make Christianity friendly to individual rights (Areshidze 2016; Herold 2014; Owen 2015; Pangle 2010; D. Stauffer 2018). This theology reconceived man's relationship to God as one of rational and enlightened self-interest—even as a social contract—rather than as duty or obligation in the traditional sense (cf., e.g., Locke 1965, 176-85, para. 243-45). It is therefore not by chance that as the concern with devotion has returned and as confidence that liberal self-interest is sufficient for a good human life has eroded, new religious challenges to liberalism have emerged. The Enlightenment's theological foundations for liberal democracy have suddenly become shaky, and, recognizing this, we are now discerning that the whole structure is at risk. The theological challenge the Enlightenment sought to dispose of has returned, and it may even have been lying dormant beneath us the whole time.
What we therefore most need is a fresh encounter with Enlightenment theology, one that can determine its integral connections to liberal democracy's foundations and its potential links to our current crisis. We need to discover whether the religious outlook the early modern tradition bequeathed us is truly at the root of our vulnerabilities, or (alternatively) whether it might not contain the basis for a richer, more robust, and higher-aiming liberal civic life. If it does turn out that modernity's theological basis contains big problems, and that these problems have come down to us in ways we now have trouble discerning, we will then need to examine the role a responsible and civically concerned political science can play in addressing our situation. That is what I aim to do in the present study. Through a detailed analysis of Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise and Tocqueville's Democracy in America, I will seek to reveal not only the foundations of our moral hopes for liberalism and democracy but also the reasons why those hopes seem to be unfulfilled in ways we ourselves often have trouble grasping—and what we can do about it.
The Plan of the Book
Before embarking on this task, it is necessary to say a word about why I have chosen to focus on these two authors and why considering their two books can be helpful for addressing our main concern. Recent decades have witnessed a surge of interest in Spinoza among scholars of intellectual history and political philosophy (Balibar 2008; Den Uyl 2008; Hampshire 2005; James 2012; Smith 1997, 2003, 2005; Verbeek 2003). Most notably, Jonathan Israel has discovered in Spinoza's thought the unifying element of the European Enlightenment—and the anti-religious and anti-monarchic arguments that toppled the ancien régime. In contrast to Locke, who had refused toleration to atheists and Catholics, Spinoza argued for the nearly unlimited liberty of thought and expression, and so, to Israel, he should be credited with originating the "quintessential values of western 'modernity'": "democracy, freedom of thought and expression, individual freedom, comprehensive toleration, rule of law, equality, and sexual emancipation" (2006, 42, 135-63; and 2001, 265-70).
But the renewed interest in Spinoza has as much to do with the hope to rectify liberalism's perceived shortcomings as it does with the effort to uncover its historical origins, for his thought articulates a rights-based vision of liberal democracy that also promises an ethic of civic dedication and an aspiration to intellectual flourishing (cf. Skeaff 2018). That promising political vision, however, is rooted in a confrontation with the Bible's challenge to reason and to a purportedly rational politics. The Theologico-Political Treatise is the founding document of both modern liberal democracy and modern liberal religion (Yaffe 2004, 267), and it makes clear the necessary and inextricable connection between the two. Our understanding of liberalism's foundational crisis must therefore begin with Spinoza's Treatise because that work takes seriously, in a way most defenses of liberalism today do not, the challenge posed by the illiberal political claims of revealed religion. Moreover, as I will argue in Chapters 1 and 2, Spinoza's case against the Bible's politics is largely psychological and moral. He seeks to replace its vision of human excellence—a life of loving devotion to God—with one that celebrates the intellectual and political liberty of the individual. The Treatise culminates in a description of a participatory, and also commercial, democratic republic in which citizens are bound together by a moral commitment to uphold the right of each person "to think what he wants and to say what he thinks" (Spinoza 2004, xx.title).
To indicate the foundations underlying this political vision, I devote Chapter 1 to an analysis of the Treatise's preface, in which Spinoza indicates the motivations and aims of his political project, and to its first ten chapters, which begin his treatment of theology. In the preface, Spinoza articulates a psychology of religious belief that uncovers the roots of "superstition" in fear, ignorance, and a peculiar hope that affects people in desperate circumstances. These natural causes of belief led, in the Christian West, to a religious outlook placing the origin of political authority in divine right and castigating reason as "by nature corrupt" (pref.18). The result, to Spinoza, has been political dysfunction—a pendulum between religious tyranny and religious war—together with a profound threat to philosophy and the philosophic life. To vindicate both individual reason and a rational politics, Spinoza devotes chapters 1-10 of the Treatise to a critique of the Bible. Here, he effectively replaces the Bible's teachings about the character of knowledge, law, politics, and nature (including human nature and "human blessedness") with those derived from his own scientific insights and perspective.
As I will argue, however, the core of Spinoza's criticism of the Bible turns out to be not scientific but moral and psychological. In these chapters, he reveals the Bible's quintessential moral teaching as one of devotion, and he asserts that this devotion is nourished and fostered by a psychological state of admiration and wonder. (In Spinoza's usage the terms "devotion," "admiration," and "wonder" are always pejorative.) To supplant this morality, Spinoza propagates a new religious teaching for which he claims to find biblical support, the centerpiece of which is an individualistic, anti-devotional, and therefore anti-theological kind of pride. This pride celebrates the individual's capacity to think for himself and rule himself, and its progressive development in future liberal citizens is the key element in a planned gradual liberation from the Bible's authority and its devotional moral outlook. As I will argue, each chapter of the Treatise presents a stage in an education that Spinoza intends to unfold on two levels—that of the potentially philosophic individual and that of society at large. The discrepancy between these two audiences helps explain some of the Treatise's contradictions, as does one other feature of this education: because it is meant to be progressive, many of its beginning and intermediate stages are intentionally self-undermining. Hence, as I show in Chapter 2, the Treatise's theological chapters reach a peak when Spinoza articulates a civil religion—consisting of "the dogmas of the universal faith" (xiv.24)—but he then shatters the foundations of that faith when, shortly afterward, he purports to bring about the separation of philosophy from theology (xiv.37).
In Chapter 2, then, which is an analysis of the second half of the Treatise, I examine the stages of this education and its intended results. In doing so, I also gather evidence for what I anticipate will be the book's most controversial argument, namely, that Spinoza's attempt to transform society by propagating a new moral and religious teaching has a theoretical, and not merely a political, intention. On the basis of some of the Treatise's more unusual elements—its contradictions, its sarcastic digressions, its oblique references, its circular arguments—I suggest that Spinoza was aware that reason and the rational life cannot be vindicated through straightforward argumentation, so he turned to another means: the refutation of miracles and revelation through a historical project. That project, if successful, would show that because human beings can live without the experience of devotion—or at least that they can admire and take their bearings from a liberation from it—the Bible's understanding of the human condition is false.
This possibility, I argue, is the main thread connecting Spinoza's civil religion teaching in chapters 11-15 and his teaching of natural right in chapters 16-20. To judge its potential for success, it is necessary to analyze how this latter teaching underlies Spinoza's attempt to create a democratic republic marked by both individual freedom and civic devotion. Spinoza's natural right teaching is far more radical and individualistic than Hobbes's. It purports to derive morality not only from human nature (as Hobbes's did) but also from the deterministic laws of nonhuman nature, and thus from conatus, the irrepressible drive each natural being has to "persevere in its state—doing so for its own sake and not for another" (xvi.4). Spinoza teaches that natural right is equivalent to power, but it is on precisely this basis that he promises to lay the foundation for a rich democratic communal and civic life. He claims calculations of power and benefit will lead citizens to "defend another's right as their own" (xvi.14), to "put the public right ahead of private advantages" (xvii.16), and to long for the preservation of their republic as the "highest good [summum bonum]" (xvi.21).
Spinoza's thought is thus highly enticing and promises a resolution to our current dissatisfactions because he refuses to endorse the Hobbesian position that "there is no such Finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor Summum Bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers" (Hobbes 1994, xi.1). Though Spinoza agrees with and even far exceeds Hobbes's radicalism in many respects, in speaking of a summum bonum he shows himself to be one of the "old moral philosophers" Hobbes derides. But unlike Plato, Aristotle, and the medieval rationalists, Spinoza married moral absolutism and a praise of philosophy as the best life to an attempt to undermine theocratic religion and establish liberal democracy. He uses the term summum bonum to refer both to the intellectual satisfaction achieved by the individual philosopher—"the true happiness and blessedness [beatitudo] of a human being" (iii.2)—and to the communal participation and dedication of the ordinary democratic citizen. On the surface, then, Spinoza attractively suggests that his work can overcome the fundamental problem recognized by the "old moral philosophers" prior to him: the natural tension between theory and practice. He begins the Treatise by stating that "it is equally impossible to take away superstition from the vulgar as to take away dread" (pref.33), but he ends it by declaring that the "ultimate aim [finem . . . ultimum]" of a liberal republic is enlightenment: "to free each from dread" (xx.11).
At the end of Chapter 2, I take up the question of how far this enlightenment can go, and I conclude that Spinoza's vision of a liberal democratic republic contains some tensions. Some of these he is well aware of, but there are others of which I suspect he is not. In the former category, I will argue, is the fact that however much he can narrow the tension between the individual's greatest good and that of the community, some discrepancy must remain. Bluntly put, there are some sacrifices that a rational community requires but that an individual's reason, fully cultivated, simply will not sanction. For this reason, even the most "progressive" liberal democracy in Spinoza's understanding will still require socially salutary superstitions. Indeed, as we will see, one such superstition is Spinoza's teaching of natural right itself, which anthropomorphizes nature by reading a moral teaching into it. Unlike past superstitions, however, this myth (in Spinoza's expectation) will be friendly to the flourishing of philosophy because it will present itself as science. It will purport to show, on rational grounds, why the sacrifices that liberal democracy will call for from "enlightened" citizens will ultimately redound to their benefit—and thus why they will not really be sacrifices at all.
In my estimation, however, Spinoza's political vision suffers from at least three critical problems—and these are problems of which he is, I think, unaware. His vision of a participatory and intellectually rich liberal democracy is highly compelling and attractive, not least on account of the self-knowledge it can convey to us. It can show us what we most hope for from liberalism but also—I will argue—why those hopes have been, and perhaps must be, ultimately disappointed. Here I will simply list what I think are the three biggest problems in Spinoza's political project (evidence for them will be gathered throughout Chapters 1 and 2). First, I believe Spinoza ends up drawing upon an aspect of human psychology that he cannot adequately explain. He closes the Treatise with a salute to the martyrs who will give their lives to defend the liberal republic and the freedom of thought that it makes possible (xx.35, 44). Insofar as this draws upon a genuine admiration for self-sacrifice on the part of the new liberal citizenry, I think it is indicative of a larger problem in his project. In fact, since that project rests on the propagation of a moral psychology whose centerpiece is a liberation from devotion, I think this is actually its Achilles' heel. Spinoza cannot put to bed what he himself identifies as the main aspect of the Bible's moral psychology, and this, I conclude, helps explain why revealed religion today has reemerged as a significant challenge to liberalism.
Second, in the vision of philosophy and its relation to society Spinoza outlines in chapter 20 of the Treatise, I believe we can glimpse the origins of our modern dissatisfaction with reason itself. In that chapter, Spinoza indicates that, to protect itself, philosophy must undergo a dramatic transition or devaluation. It will need to present itself as an aspiration that a relatively large class of people can take up, and in the hands of these new intellectuals, it will need to present itself (through teachings like natural right) as a spokesperson for the existing order. In a mature liberal democracy there will need to be pseudo-rational superstitions claiming to show that the demands of good citizenship lead to individual happiness. But if, in the absence of a theological adversary, philosophy will need to disguise itself as ideology, might it be difficult for the potential philosopher to recognize the genuine article? Could the belief that reason is mainly an ism defending a set of political arrangements lead, ultimately, to a dissatisfaction with reason itself? And, perhaps counterintuitively, could the establishment of an open society and the absence of the challenge of revelation lead to a decline in the art of reading—and thus pose an obstacle to the kind of genuine liberation Spinoza regards as part and parcel of the philosophic life?
Finally, there remains one last problem. While Spinoza's argument for liberal democracy has been highly appealing, might he have failed to see that, in the world he was helping to create, democracy would prove more morally compelling than liberalism? At the present moment, after all, liberalism is in crisis, but the same can hardly be said for democracy. Liberal institutions today are facing a stern challenge, but that challenge is coming from a wave of populist sentiment (which has taken on both nationalist and religious forms). In this, I think, we are seeing the latest manifestation of a phenomenon Tocqueville diagnosed in the early nineteenth century. Put plainly, Spinoza and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers helped usher in our modern way of life, and to support it, they turned their attention to the education of the modern soul. But what Spinoza failed to see was that the kind of soul he was helping to cultivate would be, in the most decisive sense, democratic rather than liberal.
To demonstrate this, and to understand its consequences, I turn in Chapters 3 and 4 to Tocqueville's Democracy in America. The historical gap between Spinoza and Tocqueville might appear vast; to bridge it we may briefly mention Montesquieu—the most frequently cited author in The Federalist and a thinker with whom Tocqueville claimed to "live a little every day" (quoted in Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, xxx). Although Montesquieu vociferously denied the charge of Spinozism (which was leveled against him: Pangle 2010, 150 n. 9), his Spirit of the Laws opens with a definition of law identical to Spinoza's (Theologico-Political Treatise, iv.1) and, on that basis, with an endorsement of Spinoza's philosophical determinism. Laws "taken in the broadest meaning" are "necessary relations deriving from the nature of things" and are binding on all beings, even "the divinity." Denying that God can suspend this necessity through miracles and revelation, Montesquieu begins his magisterial book arguing for liberal politics by endorsing the Spinozistic proposition that God is immanent in nature because his power is equivalent to his understanding (Montesquieu 1989, i.1; cf. Spinoza 1996, I, P17, Cor. 2, S). Because a world without such natural laws would cease to exist, Montesquieu says, "creation . . . presupposes rules as invariable as the fate claimed by atheists" (Montesquieu 1989, i.1). As we will see in more detail throughout this book, the political science that Tocqueville observed and evaluated in America begins from within Spinoza's new theological and scientific horizon.
Now, Tocqueville is sympathetic to the Enlightenment project and friendly to democracy, but he is also highly critical of both. As I will begin to show in Chapter 3, through his observations of political life in America, Tocqueville arrived at an understanding of human nature, and thus also a new framework for understanding modern politics, that differed sharply from that of his Enlightenment predecessors. Tocqueville saw in America the practical results of the Enlightenment project, but he analyzed those results in a way alien to that project's spirit. By observing political life as it is and taking ordinary moral opinion seriously, he saw that the political science of the early modern philosophers had created new dangers that they were unaware of and so could neither control nor direct. In particular, Tocqueville discerned among the Americans the presence of a distinctly human religious psychology—a natural hope for immortality driven by a paradoxical and ineradicable desire to affirm and forget oneself simultaneously, or to seek a kind of happiness that is found, at least partially, in acts of self-sacrifice. While Tocqueville's comments about this desire have been noted by a few scholars, they generally have not been analyzed in depth or brought to bear on his thought as a whole. But doing so, I will argue, is necessary for elucidating the guiding concerns, the underlying methods, and the practical solutions of his "new political science" (7), for that political science is designed to rectify the shortcomings of Tocqueville's Enlightenment predecessors, who, in their belief that religion is rooted in poverty, ignorance, and oppression, had mistakenly predicted that the advent of a liberal and commercial republic would satisfy our deepest longings. Among these thinkers, the one Tocqueville identifies as articulating the ultimate trajectory of modern political and intellectual life is Spinoza.
In Chapter 3, then, I indicate the character of Tocqueville's critical assessment of the Enlightenment, as well as why he thinks a new political science is needed to correct its shortcomings. Looking first at Tocqueville's introduction, I indicate the scope and methods of his political science, together with its broad practical and theoretical objectives. Then, to show how Tocqueville's writing supplements the Enlightenment's political science, I examine his treatment of the theoretical roots of American politics. I analyze the work's puzzling second chapter, which attributes America's "point of departure" not to the Enlightenment-influenced Founders of the eighteenth century but to the illiberal religion of the Puritans. But while this chapter indicates the need for traditional religion to counterbalance the political influence of modern rationalism, this is not Tocqueville's last word. Looking next at his thematic discussion of religion in volume 1, I argue that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Christianity is quite weak in Tocqueville's America. In their religious beliefs and practices, the Americans are as much influenced by modern rationalism as they are in their political arrangements.
They are, however, also deeply dissatisfied, albeit in ways they cannot fully articulate. To make this clear, I end Chapter 3 by calling attention to the religious psychology mentioned earlier, which Tocqueville discerned not from the natural strength of American religiosity—as he suggests on the surface—but from its unnatural weakness. As I argue, it was by observing the dissatisfactions and anxieties resulting from this weakness that Tocqueville uncovered the presence in human nature of a natural and permanently enduring longing for immortality—a longing that can be dimmed and distorted but never eliminated. In his view, since the Enlightenment's political science denied the existence of this longing, it also left it uncontrolled and undirected, and it left open the possibility that it would manifest itself in dangerous ways.
- In Chapter 4, I articulate the resulting dangers Tocqueville saw on the horizon for us as a consequence of this oversight, and I outline some of the solutions he posed as potential remedies. Looking mainly at volume 2, I spotlight some of the threats he discusses that have received relatively little attention from Tocqueville scholars. These include the dimming of ambition among democratic citizens, the attraction of potential tyrants and demagogues, and the seductive power of new and dangerous ideologies and religious outlooks (including rationalized religious outlooks like Pantheism—the theology most famously associated with Spinoza, which Tocqueville singles out for attack in a short but uniquely hostile chapter). But I also provide a new way of understanding the dangers to democratic liberty long familiar to students of Tocqueville: individualism (the temptation to social withdrawal), the power of public opinion, the unforeseen side effects of commerce and the conquest of nature, and—above all—the restiveness Americans feel in the midst of their well-being. Each of these threats, I argue, can be traced largely to the Enlightenment's failure to carve out a place for human religious hopes. And, ultimately, they can be linked to the two greatest dangers Tocqueville warns against: soft despotism, which is marked by a decline in human spiritual and intellectual life, and hard despotism—whose threat, I argue, is not as muted in Tocqueville or as distant from soft despotism as it may appear.
In the second part of Chapter 4, I turn to a discussion of the solutions Tocqueville proposes for preventing or mitigating these potential dangers and for creating healthy outlets for devotion and self-sacrifice. Here Tocqueville's analysis speaks in broad outlines. He leaves the practical management of his new political science to students and followers who can adjust his recommendations to future circumstances. To make the parameters of these recommendations clear, I look first at Tocqueville's practical teaching on the future of religion in the democratic world, and I articulate what I call his project of religious statesmanship. That project, however, is but one part of a more general attempt to preserve our distinctly human psychological outlook combining self-affirmation with self-transcendence. As I show, this attempt can be seen in such initially secular (and well-known) aspects of his political science as the use of associations, involvement in local government, and (encompassing them all) the doctrine of self-interest well understood. Indeed, religion is not the only possible manifestation of these twin desires, and I close Chapter 4 with a brief discussion of Tocqueville's reflections on intellectual life, which centers on his praise of Pascal.
Tocqueville's discussion of Pascal not only reveals his blueprint for preserving intellectual longings within a democratic future; it also prepares the way for a set of considerations about the justice of democracy more generally. In my concluding chapter, I juxtapose Tocqueville's project with Spinoza's, and I reflect on how Tocqueville's outlook can be useful to us today. To state my main conclusions, I believe Tocqueville is most helpful to us because his analysis can assist in recovering a kind of moderation sorely lacking in contemporary politics. It can show informed friends of democracy not only how to work within the existing order, finding real nobility where it can or does exist, but also how to guard against potential dangers when they arise. I believe Tocqueville's moderation consists both in his acknowledgment of democracy's very real claims to justice and in his simultaneous recognition that justice will never be perfect or unblemished. Tocqueville is thus helpful because he simultaneously lowers and raises our hopes for politics. He lowers them by revealing the need to abandon the quest for a perfectly just society (which quest, though perhaps latent in early modern thought, did so much damage to human well-being in the twentieth century). But he raises our hopes for politics because his account of our democracy can lead to a recovery of the longing of the soul for something dignified. This recovery can ennoble our democracy not only because it can enrich human life in a realm apart from politics, but also because it makes possible a moderate politics that is nonetheless devoted to fostering the dignity or greatness of the individual. In this way, I contend, Tocqueville points the way toward a recovery of liberalism in the most authentic sense.